Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Charlotte Martin and Jessica Street write: Dear Jeremy, We would really appreciate it if you could publish our question.

We believe this is a hot topic and your response would benefit students and agencies. It seems to us that during graduate recruitment time agencies are more interested in "red-brick" students reading philosophy and history than advertising students who have been studying the industry for three years. Advertising degrees provide an in-depth understanding and first-hand experience of advertising practice, including the areas of account management and media planning/buying. It makes us wonder, does this degree matter? Should our course fees have been spent elsewhere?

A: I'm extremely happy to publish your question. What I find a great deal more daunting is to come up with an adequate answer.

The trouble with advertising is also its most joyous characteristic. Despite protestations to the contrary, it isn't a profession. How can it be a profession when it demands of its practitioners no formal qualifications? When anyone at all, if they've got the money, can print their names on a letterhead and claim to be able to advise an advertiser on how best to spend £20 million? When none of advertising's most celebrated figures have ever been examined on their specialist subject?

Most of us would hesitate before engaging a defence lawyer or a neurosurgeon who'd never satisfied anyone of their competence to practise - not least because they'd be breaking the law. When advertisers appoint agencies, they judge their competence not on the initials after their names, but on the apparent quality of their work. In the long history of competitive pitches, no client has ever demanded to see proof of a candidate agency's professional qualifications.

So you clearly don't need a degree in advertising in order to work in it or to succeed at it; but you knew that already.

I think it's almost certainly true, when it comes to graduate recruitment time, that most agencies prefer to take on virgin minds. They're looking for potential - for enquiring, inventive brains and engaging personalities rather than relevant knowledge already in place. Or that, at least, would be their rationale. I suspect that a kind of snobbery comes into it as well.

We like to believe that advertising is at least as much art as science; that native talent is more important than the ability to compare the value of a page in The Sun with a 30-second spot on Channel 4. Swots have never enjoyed acclaim in advertising - and agencies aren't inclined to hire them. Swots take exams - whereas agencies prefer the gifted but untutored amateur.

The more I write, the more uneasy I become. If I'm right (and your suspicions are right), surely it can't be right? Ad agencies depend for their existence on being able to do things that their clients can't do for themselves. Can it really be true that advertising is the only trade that can charge for its capabilities without ever having formally acquired them? I'm pretty sure that you've wasted neither your time nor your money. But I also reluctantly suspect that the knowledge you've absorbed so far will be a great deal more useful to you when you've got yourselves jobs than it will be in getting those jobs in the first place.

PS. Not sure you're right about red- brick, though.

Q: Martin Cole writes: According to that ghastly management speak cliche, "there is no I in team". Is it also true that there is no we in creative?

A: As is universally accepted, committees create camels and inspired originality can spring only from a single inspired individual. Unfortunately, neither truth survives scrutiny.

I cannot imagine a great portrait painting being a collaborative effort, nor a great musical composition. But our trade has almost nothing to do with great works of art. Our trade exists in order to have an effect on people; of attitude, behaviour or both. However beautiful an ad, if it fails to achieve its intended purpose it's a bad ad. I hope no-one finds that shocking. Making an ad campaign is much more like making a commercial film than painting a picture or composing a concerto. Films set out to be successful. Reviews matter, but in the end, their success will be measured not subjectively but objectively, in numbers: length of run or box office receipts. The very best films are highly creative, highly successful - and without exception, the product of teams. Ask any team of six people which of those six was the most influential and you may very well get six answers - and each perceived to be the truth.

So there is, of course, an "I" in creative; in our line of business, probably at least six of them.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.